Search

The Pen Is Mightier With starters pitching fewer innings, more teams--including some of baseball's best--are building their staffs around an array of relief specialists

Sept. 20, 1999
Sept. 20, 1999

Table of Contents
Sept. 20, 1999

U.S. Open
Baseball [bonus Piece]

The Pen Is Mightier With starters pitching fewer innings, more teams--including some of baseball's best--are building their staffs around an array of relief specialists

Mike Munoz has pitched 11 seasons in the big leagues and has
never started a game, has never pitched as many as four innings
in a game, has never won five games in a season and has never
had four saves in one year. He has a 5.29 career ERA and a
fastball that tops out around 85 mph. Yet he works often and
briefly with no heavy lifting and for generous pay ($450,000
this year), which makes him Kathie Lee Gifford with a curveball.

This is an article from the Sept. 20, 1999 issue Original Layout

Munoz is, of course, lefthanded. Like day traders and
independent counsels, he has been part of an occupational
breakthrough this decade: the specialty reliever. He also is a
vital reason why the playoff-bound Texas Rangers, despite a
franchise-worst 5.69 ERA from its starters, are among several
bullpen-rich teams turning conventional baseball wisdom on its
ear. To win a championship, it once was thought, a pitching
staff needed a strong starting rotation with an auxiliary corps
of relievers. Now, with the majors so thin in talented starters,
many teams look to their relievers to pitch nearly as many
innings and get almost as many decisions as the starters.

Baseball has been hit by a bullpen boom, the echo to the home
run explosion. More and more relievers are pitching more and
more innings and deciding more and more games. Through Sunday
they had accounted for 28.9% of this season's wins and losses,
up from 20.6% in 1951 and 24.2% in 1971. This has guaranteed
employment for situational relievers--especially lefties such as
the 34-year-old Munoz. "Sure, being lefthanded has helped keep
me in the game," he says. "They say lefties have nine lives, and
now every team needs somebody to come in and get one or two guys
out."

Good thing for Munoz that this is not 1971. If it were, says his
manager, Johnny Oates, "he'd be Dave Leonhard." That season
Leonhard, a righthander, was the ninth man on the nine-man
pitching staff of the pennant-winning Baltimore Orioles. He
appeared in 12 games all season. "He once told me he went 41
games without pitching," says Boston Red Sox pitching coach Joe
Kerrigan, whom Leonhard coached in the minors. "That can't
happen now. Now we have rotations for our relief pitchers."

Says New York Yankees pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre, "The
philosophy is to have as many pitchers available as you can for
as many games as possible."

Exhibit A is the Sept. 7 matchup between the Arizona
Diamondbacks and the Milwaukee Brewers--the third game in
history to feature a combined 15 pitchers, the major league
record. All three such games have occurred since 1993. The
Diamondbacks used seven pitchers to get the last 14 outs in
their 11-9, nine-inning win. On the same night the New York Mets
used a club-record eight pitchers in a 7-4 loss to the San
Francisco Giants.

"Getting from two outs in the sixth inning to the ninth inning
is the most important part of the game," Oates says. "That's
where you'll win or lose the pennant. It's even more important
in the playoffs, when every run is magnified."

The Mets, Rangers and Cincinnati Reds made themselves into
strong contenders more on the depth and strength of their
bullpens than on their starting rotations, an anomaly before
this decade. At week's end, only the relievers of the American
League East's last-place Tampa Bay Devil Rays had thrown more
innings than the Texas bullpen. Cincinnati led the majors in
relief wins (31), ERA (3.20) and batting average against (.220),
while three of its pitchers--all righties--rank first (Scott
Sullivan), second (Danny Graves) and sixth (Scott Williamson) in
relief innings.

The Cleveland Indians expected to ride their relievers, but its
bullpen now is easily the worst (4.53 ERA) of any team still
among the contenders. The relievers' injuries and
ineffectiveness cloud Cleveland's postseason prospects. "All
year we've basically been looking for a guy who can carry a lead
from our starters to our late relievers," Indians manager Mike
Hargrove says.

The bullpens of the Yankees and the Houston Astros might be the
most playoff-ready, especially if Houston returns hard-throwing
23-year-old righthander Scott Elarton, who's been in the
rotation since the end of June, to setup work. Both bullpens
have dominating closers--righty Mariano Rivera for New York and
lefty Billy Wagner (page 68) for Houston--and have carried the
lightest workload of innings in their respective leagues. The
Yankees' pen, moreover, is battle-tested. Rivera, and his setup
men, lefty Mike Stanton and righties Jeff Nelson and Ramiro
Mendoza, have a combined 1.45 ERA over 105 2/3 innings of
postseason experience. Rivera is particularly steely, having
allowed two runs in 35 playoff innings (0.51 ERA). "He's as
close to automatic as there is in the game," Stottlemyre says.

The bullpen bonanza is a far cry from the lonely days of
little-used Leonhard, who was superfluous in 1971 because
20-game winners Mike Cuellar, Pat Dobson, Dave McNally and Jim
Palmer regularly pitched deep into games, averaging 7.6 innings
per start. Pete Richert and Eddie Watt led Baltimore's relievers
with 35 appearances apiece--fewer than every starter but McNally.

The modern bullpen began taking on multiple layers in 1979, when
Chicago Cubs manager Herman Franks turned his best reliever,
Bruce Sutter, into a specialist. To conserve Sutter's energy,
Franks reserved Sutter for use only in games in which Chicago
held a lead.

In the late '80s, Oakland A's manager Tony La Russa took that
idea a step further when he converted righty Dennis Eckersley
from a starter into a closer--a reliever he preferred to use for
just one inning, the ninth, so that Eck would be available more
often. That meant La Russa needed relievers such as Rick
Honeycutt, Gene Nelson and Todd Burns to quell uprisings in the
seventh and eighth innings. In truth, those A's relied more on
brilliant starting pitching (Dave Stewart, Bob Welch) than on
their bullpen, and La Russa's role in the promulgation of
"specialized" relief has been overstated. La Russa won his only
world championship in 1989 with Honeycutt as his only lefthander
in the bullpen for most of the season, and that year the A's
ranked behind three other American League clubs in relief
appearances.

Nonetheless, Eckersley's success in a well-insulated role
sparked the rapid mutation of the bullpen as we now know it.
Pitching changes per game, which had climbed slowly throughout
the century, have spiked 27% since La Russa put Eckersley in the
pen in 1987. This season's rate of 6.05 changes per game through
Sunday (chart, page 67) is the highest in history, and if it
holds up will mark this as the ninth record year out of the past
13. Starters had lasted an average of 5.91 innings this year, on
course for an alltime low.

"You need more reinforcements now because of all the offense,"
says Texas pitching coach Dick Bosman. "Smaller parks, smaller
strike zones, harder balls, harder bats--[frequent pitching
changes are] a reaction to all of it. Now it takes more pitches,
more effort, to get through a lineup, especially in our league."

Most baseball clubs still prefer to build around a solid
starting rotation. But inning-eating workhorses are increasingly
rare, and teams have unwittingly ensured that it will stay that
way. By fortifying their bullpens and reducing the workloads of
minor league pitchers out of concern for their arms, teams have
fostered a generation of starters who believe their
responsibility ends with the sixth inning. "It will continue to
play out like this," says Stottlemyre. "The next change may be
that someone finally figures out the starters aren't pitching as
much, so they'll go back to a four-man rotation."

The job of the closer, meanwhile, has become increasingly cushy.
At week's end Arizona righthander Matt Mantei had inherited four
runners all season--none since his July 9 trade from the Florida
Marlins to the Diamondbacks. On Sept. 4, Arizona lefty Greg
Swindell protected a one-run lead against the Atlanta Braves by
working through the top six spots in the lineup over the seventh
and eighth innings. Mantei then blew through the unimposing trio
of Randall Simon, Eddie Perez and Greg Myers for the save.
"Greg," Mantei admitted afterward, "really saved the game."

The crucible of the postseason might prompt the Diamondbacks to
bring in Mantei in more difficult circumstances, as the San
Diego Padres did with righty Trevor Hoffman last year. Never in
the '98 regular season was Hoffman asked to get six outs for a
save. When manager Bruce Bochy tried it in Game 3 of the World
Series, inserting his closer in the eighth, Hoffman was torched
for a game-winning three-run homer by the Yankees' Scott Brosius.

The value of the save has grown increasingly nebulous. Closers
no longer are called firemen because usually someone else has
put out the fire before they arrive. For instance, through
Sunday the active saves leader, lefty John Franco of the Mets,
had entered with the tying run on base for only 12 of his 205
saves over the past eight years, and in 171 of those saves the
bases were empty. Among his 416 career saves, Franco was asked
to protect a one-run lead only 148 times. He enjoyed a cushion
of three or more runs on almost as many occasions (138).

"First you needed a closer, then it was the setup guy, then it
was right and left setup guys," says Rangers general manager
Doug Melvin. "Then you needed a lefthanded specialist and now
you need a long man, because you don't want to have to use a
setup guy in long relief and not have him available for the next
couple of games."

The setup relievers have become so important that the best young
arms on a staff no longer are automatically put in the rotation.
The Reds' Williamson, who has set up Graves and also closed, is
a converted starter. In the next month Elarton and Cleveland
righty Steve Karsay will be more valuable to their respective
teams out of the bullpen. "I'd rather have Steve help me win
three games [in a series] than one game," Hargrove explains.

The market for setup men is hot, perhaps overheated. Last year
the Cubs traded a 19-year-old former first-round pick,
righthander Jon Garland, to the Chicago White Sox for a
32-year-old middle reliever, Matt Karchner. Last winter
Cleveland wanted setup lefty Ricardo Rincon so badly that it
traded outfielder Brian Giles to the Pittsburgh Pirates; Giles
had a breakout season--.312, 36 home runs and 108 RBIs at week's
end. (In 50 outings, Rincon was 2-3 with a 4.71 ERA.) Lefties
are so coveted that this year they account for the four highest
salaries among relievers who weren't signed as primary closers:
Scott Radinsky of the St. Louis Cardinals ($2.5 million), Arthur
Rhodes of Baltimore ($2.2 million), Stanton ($2.02 million) and
Dennis Cook of the Mets ($2 million). "And Rhodes will pass them
all this winter as a free agent," predicts one American League
general manager, "even with a five-something ERA." (It was 5.43,
to be exact.)

The Rangers, whose only effective starters have been
righthanders Rick Helling and Aaron Sele (29 wins combined at
week's end), pay six setup men who work in front of righthanded
closer John Wetteland a combined $2.01 million, or less than
what New York pays Stanton. Righty Tim Crabtree ($670,000) leads
Munoz on the Rangers' pay scale, followed by righty Danny
Patterson ($290,000) and three minimum-wage rookies: lefty Mike
Venafro and righties Danny Kolb and Jeff Zimmerman ($200,000
each), all of whom began the year in the minors.

Venafro and Zimmerman were eligible for the 1993 draft, and the
Rangers took the 5'10" Venafro, out of James Madison, in the
29th round. Zimmerman wasn't even one of the 1,073 players
selected. The unwanted Zimmerman began a journey that took him
from Texas Christian to France to Canada to the Northern League
to the Rangers' minor league system and, this season, to Texas
and the All-Star Game.

If you'd like to know how the Rangers could still be on pace to
win 96 games with a rotation described as "Sele and Helling and
take the shelling," look no further than the apartment shared by
Venafro, 26, and Zimmerman, 27. You will find a tidy kitchen.
"Not a pot's been moved since we moved in," Venafro said. "We
crush the [postgame] spread every night." You will also find two
more believers in the expanding religion of the bullpen.

"We wake up every morning," Venafro said, "and laugh."

COLOR PHOTO ILLUSTRATION: DIGITAL IMAGING BY BOB THOMPSON AND DAN LARKIN Texas tag team Relievers (from left) Munoz, Wetteland, Venafro, Patterson, Zimmerman, Crabtree and Kolb have compensated for the shortcomings of the Rangers starters.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JEFFREY LOWE [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: KEVIN LOCKE/MLB PHOTOS Converted Minor league starter Williamson is a major league hit in relief with 11 wins and a 1.91 ERA at week's end. COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON One-shot Stanton's stints tend to be short and sweet.COLOR PHOTO: JOHN WILLIAMSON/MLB PHOTOS Middle man When Atlanta's rotation falters, Mike Remlinger bridges the gap between starter and closer.

Nice Work if You Can Get It

Over the past 12 seasons, the number of one-batter relief
appearances has almost doubled--from 532 in 1987 to 978 last
year. (Two expansions, in '93 and '98, helped swell the
figures.) Through Sunday there already had been 855 such outings
this season, with each of the pitchers listed at right making at
least 14 of them. All are lefties--which any lefthanded batter
could have guessed.

Pitcher, Team One-Batter Total
Appearances Appearances

Mike Myers, BREWERS 29 63
Buddy Groom, A'S 27 70
Jesse Orosco, ORIOLES 24 58
Steve Kline, EXPOS 18 73
Paul Assenmacher, INDIANS 16 48
C.J. Nitkowski, TIGERS 15 64
Mike Stanton, YANKEES 15 67
Vic Darensbourg, MARLINS 14 51
Eddie Guardado, TWINS 14 54
Felix Heredia, CUBS 14 62
Jim Poole, INDIANS 14 54

SOURCE: STATS INC.

Where Have You Gone, Big Train?

Early this century, the ideal pitcher was a man such as Walter
Johnson, who, from 1907 through '27, threw a modern-day record
531 complete games. But almost inexorably, the mound has become
more and more of a revolving door, as the number of pitching
changes per game (both teams) shows.

YEAR PITCHING CHANGES

1909 1.39
1919 2.16
1929 2.71
1939 2.93
1949 3.28
1959 3.79
1969 4.20
1979 4.04
1989 4.75
1999* 6.05

*Through Sunday

SOURCE: STATS INC.

"Getting from two outs in the sixth inning to the ninth is the
most important part of the game," Oates says.